Miriam Lawrence with her 11-year-old daughter, Eliana, at their home in Denver last week. In 2014, Eliana began using a hair product and within weeks her hair began falling out until she was completely bald. Credit Nick Cote for The New York Times
You can’t legally buy a drug in the United States that hasn’t undergone rigorous testing, mandated by Congress, to prove that it’s safe and effective. By contrast, that lipstick, shampoo, or deodorant you use every day may have undergone no such testing.
And there’s cause to wonder if those products are safe. More than 21,000 complaints of itching, rashes and hair loss, for instance, have been sent to the manufacturer and distributor of Wen Hair Care products. And hair-straightening products that contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, have caused allergic reactions, hair loss, rashes, blisters and other problems in salon workers and their customers.
A bill introduced by two senators — Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, and Susan Collins, Republican of Maine — would change that by requiring the Food and Drug Administration to evaluate a minimum of five chemicals used in cosmetics every year and to collect fees from the industry to pay for those reviews. The agency would also get the power to order companies to recall dangerous products and to force companies to provide it with safety data and reports of adverse health effects from consumers.
The bill has the backing of public interest groups like the Environmental Working Group and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, as well as much of the cosmetics industry, including big companies like Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble. But some manufacturers, like Mary Kay, oppose the bill because they argue that its provisions would be too onerous. They are pushing a much weaker measure introduced by Representative Pete Sessions, Republican of Texas, that would not require the F.D.A. to review risky ingredients and wouldn’t give the agency authority to order recalls.
Scientists and consumers have raised numerous concerns about personal care products. Experts are particularly concerned about the use of chemicals that may not cause immediate problems, but could over time increase the risk of cancer, reproductive disorders and other ailments.
One of the first five chemicals the F.D.A. would be required to review is lead acetate, a color additive used in hair dyes, which the European Union has banned because it is linked to reproductive problems. The other four ingredients are used in shampoos, lotions and other products. The E.U. has set limits on the concentrations in which those compounds can be used.
All told, European officials have restricted or banned more than 1,300 chemicals and groups of chemicals, experts say; the F.D.A. has prohibited 11 ingredients. That shocking discrepancy makes clear how far behind the United States is in this area. It also shows that sensible regulations will not cripple companies that make cosmetics, since many of their products are already covered by European law.
The bill could be stronger. Since it would require the F.D.A. to review a minimum of only five chemicals at a time, it would take years to review many chemicals that scientists and consumers are worried about. In later years, the F.D.A. would choose the chemicals in consultation with the industry and consumer groups. The legislation, a compromise between the wishes of industry and consumer groups, would also pre-empt state regulations of cosmetics. It is, however, a vast improvement over the status quo and deserves prompt attention in a congressional session that has only a few weeks left, between Labor Day and the November election.